Archive for January, 2008

Now that we’re opening a second restaurant, I am looking at everything with fresh eyes. I love the website for Alison at Blue Bell! I especially love the way it reflects the personality of Alison at Blue Bell. When people go to a restaurant – their experience should be consistent with the expectations set by viewing the website. I think our website does that. It’s not overly slick or promotional. I think it reflects the experience you’ll have in the restaurant.


When we first opened, we didn’t have a website. That’s unthinkable now. And in the years since we designed it, the way people use the web has changed. Our needs have changed and I notice that new customers have different needs than our regulars. So, our website it going to be updated too.

Our regulars are willing to book holiday dinners (New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, Beer Dinner) before we even publish the menu. We’ve earned their trust over the years and they know we’ll try our hardest to “wow” them. One customer often complains that I make her want to lick her plate clean! I cherish the trusting relationship we’ve built and work hard to continually nurture it.

Newer customers, understandably, want a little more information before they commit. Maybe they are linking from foobooz, Zagat, Gayot, Food & Drinq, aroundphilly.com or read about us in Philly Mag  and they visit our site for more information. Right now we’re not putting special event details and menus on the site. We don’t want the homepage to look like a strip shopping center full of signs. But we need to find an attractive way to publish special event information on the site.  

Another issue is that special events are promoted first in our email newsletter. Sometimes regulars (who get the email newsletter every 6-8 weeks or so) are booking up events before newbies even hear about them. Events will soon be listed on the website too. (And newbies that want to sign up for the email newsletter can click here  to sign up.)

Our website isn’t a simple kit where you just CLICK and add a special events page. It is beautifully designed by Elizabeth Kilroy. Elizabeth originally designed the site so that we could put special events on the homepage linked to the “What’s Going On” section. At the time, we didn’t have many special events – so that section became a repository for our newsletter. To make our site more effective, we’ll be returning to her original idea, of putting events on a somewhat redesigned homepage with links to more information about special events and changing “What’s Going On” to “Newsletter.” That’ll make it easier for everyone to know exactly what is going on. Elizabeth will ensure that we don’t want to lose that quality, that it flows well and is easy to navigate.


Opening a new restaurant is a journey. Updating our website is one more step. Other steps we’re taking this week are interviewing new staff, finally nailing down a date for Beer Week  and cooking up some Valentine’s Day surprises….



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Alison two

Lots of restaurants use ingredient names – like Salt or Branzino, in Philadelphia or Butter, Aquivit or Drink in NYC. I thought about that but I don’t feel connected to any one ingredient. Lots of restaurants use a location – like Ouest, on the Upper West Side, 333 Belrose or Alison at Blue Bell. I thought people would want to know where we are. I thought about that but “Ft. Washington” just doesn’t sing. Don’t get me wrong – Ft. Washington is a lovely neighborhood but I couldn’t see incorporating the name into the name of the restaurant.

We picked Alison two. And, like any good name, once we decided, it just felt right. The name reflects our ideal that the second restaurant be part of the same family as Alison at Blue Bell, yet have its own distinct personality too. Likewise, the logo is an extension of the original brand – Alison at Blue Bell.

I know there is no “ta da” but I think the name makes sense. The colors work, the graphics work. I think the names work well together as a family. It works for us. We weren’t looking for a cutesy and trendy name– because we’re not cutesy and trendy. It’s my food – which you’ve come to know – at my second place. We’re happy with the first restaurant. It is working. We aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel. We’re opening the second restaurant because we want to grow and do more. The name reflects that.

Some people like the name. Some don’t. Some bloggers think I’m egotistical. (Check out opinions at  foobooz, chowhound, shallowcenter and foodandrinq.) But, no matter how much you dislike the name, you can’t be as disappointed as Tom Pittakas, our manager. He felt strongly about it and launched a whole campaign to name the restaurant “Tom.” He had customers rallying for him and everything. I think he was disappointed – but not surprised.

One of the beauties of a name like Alison (unlike Tom) is that the name of the restaurant comes up near the top of every alphabetical listing. I don’t think my folks planned it that way – but it was a good move. Perhaps if Mr. and Mrs. Pittakas had named him Alvin we’d have considered it. I like being an “A” and I just love our “A” logo.

My friend, Ellen Diamant, designed the logo. She also designed the logo for Alison Café, the tiny restaurant I opened in Skippack when I returned to Philadelphia, and Alison at Blue Bell. Since developing those logos, Ellen’s business, Skip*Hop, has really taken off. She designs and sells hip accessories for new parents. Check it out. I was worried that she wouldn’t have time to design our new logo and was relieved that she agreed to do it. I’m so happy with the final logo. It feels classy and upscale to me.

Ellen also introduced me to our web designer extraordinaire, Elizabeth KilroyMy cool website design has attracted national attention, thanks to her. She designs my email newsletters too. If you’re not getting the email newsletter and want to sign up, click here and hit “sign up for newsletter.” Pretty soon she’ll start working on the site for Alison two. We’ve acquired  alisontwo.com, alison2.com and alisonII.com.


Don’t bother to go to the new website yet – there’s nothing to see. Designing that website is on the “to do” list, along with picking out furniture, creating our Beer Week menu and preparing for Valentine’s Day. I’ll keep you posted….


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I met with the architect again today. I’m really happy. I like the design and think we’re getting there. It is exciting! It looks like everything will flow well. Next, to ensure that traffic flow will be efficient, the architects will make the blueprint into a 3-d model. That will also help us determine if a few tables need curtains or other types of barriers for privacy.

Meeting with Kevin & Lee

Chris, Kevin and a potential restaurant manager were all at the meeting with me. We all left smiling. Then, I emailed the blueprint to a friend who has lots of restaurant experience, tons of common sense and strong opinions. Naturally, he had some questions about the layout. So there’s another discussion…



One thing I am really excited about is the flexibility of the space. We have one area that can be a large private dining room (PDR) for 40 or 50 people or divided into two smaller rooms. I envision hosting bridal and baby showers, birthday parties and family events. We’re even planning to have Wi-Fi so the rooms can be used for corporate presentations and meetings. On days the room isn’t being used, it can be opened up and used as part of the restaurant – increasing the seating capacity.  

Restaurant Layout

There was still one awkward space that was small and dark. I thought it was crying out to be a wine cellar. But, as the design evolved, the space opened up and it is now going to be a living room. Picture a relaxing, room with a fireplace, small bar and maybe a TV – almost like home only someone else brings your snacks so you don’t have to run into the kitchen during the commercials, refills your drink and even cleans up after you. What could be better? It will also be an unusual and inviting space for greeting guests before private parties. It’s just a warm and welcoming place to hang out in. I’m sure we’ll find a million ways to use it. I may just move in!


The other space we spent a lot of time talking about was the lobby. Sometimes people don’t want to be seated until their whole party arrives. That usually means waiting in a bar – but I know that I don’t always feel comfortable waiting in a bar. The lobby is designed to feel like an extension of the bar, where guests can relax, have a drink and visit with friends as they’re coming and going without actually being in the bar. And, if there is a short wait for a table, it would be a comfortable place to be.



Well, everyone loved the wine pairings we offered at Alison at Blue Bell on New Year’s Eve. We got to try new wines and unexpected food/wine pairings. It was fun! So, for Valentine’s Day we’re offering a flight of three glasses of wine matched to the menu. Having a liquor license adds a whole new dimension. So glad we’ll have a full bar at the new place! But, that’s a post for another day…

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I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about how I want the food to be presented. Although we’ve picked the China pattern, we’re busy picking accent pieces.

 Rectangular plattersOne of the tough things about buying china for a restaurant is the sheer number of pieces you need – bread and butter plates, coffee cups and saucers, dinner plates, dinner plates for irregularly-shaped entrees like whole fish, dishes for sides and desserts, etc., etc. And, something everyone can relate to, is that it is like buying hot dogs and buns – cups might come in cases of 20 and saucers in cases of 24.

I don’t like plates with designs. I like white plates with rims. At Venus, our bread and butter plates had colored rims and you could interchange them. They were pretty cool – so cool that they were frequently stolen. I’d like to avoid that type of thing in the future.

And I really want flexibility. Having plates that can only be used for certain dishes takes up too much room and is limiting. My china salesperson had a good idea. She suggested that instead of getting dishes that can only be used for bread and butter and another that can only be a saucer, getting a slightly larger plate that can be used for Amelia’s amazing bread and coffee service, as well as cheeses and sides. I love that kind of flexibility. I mean, why stock a saucer that can only be used for coffee? Does anyone really use saucers anyway?

The dinner plate I finally settled on is contemporary, but hopefully won’t look dated in five years – like bellbottoms. Another thing I like about it is that it is big enough to plate whole fish and over-sized steaks, without the food going over the rim. I think it looks sloppy when food goes over Purio Bowlsthe rim.

Purio PlatesI am looking at soup bowls. If you use a plate under the bowl, it slides around when it is being served. The way to prevent sliding is by using doilies. I just want to pick a bowl that doesn’t require me to use a plate or doilies. I hate doilies under plates, I just do, I don’t know why. That’s just the way it is.   

Next is silverware. We picked our pattern a while ago. But, just because it looks right doesn’t mean it feels right. Don’t you hate when the knife flips on your plate? I do. I want silverware that works well with my plate, feels good in my hand and looks good on the table.

Now that New Year’s Eve has passed, I’ll be planning a short trip to Maine to film a special episode of Fretz Kitchen. I always love being on that show and I hear Maine is cold, but beautiful this time of year. Speaking of cold, when you’re in Alison at Blue Bell, try our hot cocoa with Amelia’s homemade cream-filled chocolate sandwich cookies (they look like giant Oreos-even though we can’t say that.) Stay warm…

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